In the first of these two samplers looking back at articles and paintings published here during this past year, I covered the first six months. In the summer I started a major series looking at the life and work of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya.
Among many other themes, one which Goya explored more than any other major artist of the day was the bright young things known as maja (woman) and majo (man). These were social upstarts from Madrid’s lower classes who dressed distinctively and flaunted their style in public. Goya delivered The Parasol to be turned into a tapestry in August 1777, and it shows a young couple in detail. She holds a fan, and has a lapdog. Her eyes are large and dark, and her face lit unusually thanks to the parasol.
Although not known for his narrative works, in about 1806 he painted a series of oil sketches telling the partly true story of one Friar Pedro, who turned the tables on a notorious villain, El Maragato.
In the fifth of his six paintings, the hero Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off. Orange and yellow flames are shown at the flintlock, and emerging from the gun barrel. The villainous El Maragato really has had a bad day: his horse has run off, he’s lost his gun, been overpowered by a friar, and been shot in the buttocks.
Goya’s most famous painting shows a scene from the fierce resistance in Madrid against French invasion in 1808.
Goya’s depiction of the early morning executions of The Third of May (1814) is radical. He adopts the clear colours and form which had been popularised in the paintings of David, combining that with the narrative technique which he had honed in the story of Friar Pedro, and creates what must be the first major modern painting of the nineteenth century.
The scene is set by the hill of Príncipe Pío, in the area known now as Moncloa. As it’s still dark, he recesses the distant buildings into the night and places his martyr-heroes in the spotlight. The firing squad is arrayed in military style, regular and rhythmic at the right. Their victims are a ragged assortment of terrified citizens, the next to be shot wearing a white shirt of surrender, with his arms reminiscent of the crucified Christ.
Goya continued not only to paint but to experiment with media and styles well into his retirement. Among the most fascinating of his late works are a series of tiny watercolour paintings which he made on slivers of ivory.
Woman with Clothes Blowing in the Wind is one of the most modern of these compositions.
This was also the time that I started a series which proved a real eye-opener, as I attempted to discover the careers and works of those who painted in Impressionist style in Britain during the late nineteenth century.
Among those who emerged was Philip Wilson Steer, whose high-chroma paintings from the end of the 1880s were made on the coast of Suffolk.
One of the later wave of British Impressionists was Sir George Clausen, who painted The Gleaners Returning in 1908. This marvellous contre-jour view uses swirling brushstrokes to impart movement in the women’s clothes.
Another of my series which proved a revelation to research and compile was a short history of still life painting. Generally considered to be the least important of the genres, artists paint still lifes for a variety of reasons, but few are as prolific as the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase.
A dedicated and long-serving teacher, he often painted still lifes of fish when instructing. These were described by Harriet Blackstone, when she was one of his students:
“It is a delight to watch Mr Chase make these fish pictures, for he so frankly loves them himself and takes such evident joy in the making – humming and whistling as he works, stepping back, admiring and smacking his lips over the luscious colours.”
(Quoted by Bourguignon in Smithgall, 2016.)
These became Chase’s performance art. They may have been still lifes, and their greatest art was not in the resulting painting, but in the performance of their making. He usually painted them in just a couple of hours, like a musician running through their scales and other warming up exercises prior to a concert performance. It’s claimed that he worked only with fresh fish – which looked best – and that he was able to return his models to the fishmonger, still fresh enough to go back out for sale.
His quick portraits and still lifes such as Still Life, Fish (1912) were awarded as prizes to those of his students who excelled. They could then start the student’s personal art collection, or be used as a sound investment.
This year also saw the bicentenary of the birth of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter Thomas Seddon (1821–1856), who achieved brief fame with his landscapes of the Middle East.
Seddon’s last painting, of The Pyramids at Gizeh, is believed to have been painted in the autumn of 1856. Shortly afterwards, he contracted dysentery, and died of that in Cairo on 23 November 1856, aged only thirty-five. The following year his paintings were exhibited at a memorial exhibition, and even John Ruskin praised his “perfect artistical skill” and “topographical accuracy”.
Finally, I show a couple of examples from two current series. The first is taken from a series on landscape composition, which is just concluding.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes painted this magnificent View of Rome in front of the motif during the period that he worked in the Roman Campagna, compiling a private library of these oil sketches to use for his later studio paintings. Notable here is the depiction of the clouds of dust and smoke rising from the streets of the city, which surely qualify it as an ‘impression’, although it was painted a century before the height of Impressionism.
The other series has only just started, and looks at influences between art and science. In its second article, I have just looked at the introduction and effect of modern synthetic pigments. After its discovery and synthesis in 1803-04, cobalt blue was quickly introduced into artists’ paints, becoming available in oil paints and watercolours from around 1806-08.
Turner’s famous painting of the Fighting Temeraire from 1839 is probably the first major painting in which cobalt blue was used extensively, throughout both the sky and water. Synthetic pigments have since come to dominate our palettes, and the look of our paintings.
I look forward to showing you more wonderful paintings in the New Year.